Everyone in a professional work environment has had the displeasure of dealing with a difficult coworker in the past—and you’re likely dealing with at least one difficult coworker in your present situation. Thankfully, in most cases, these challenging interactions are limited, serving as minimal annoyances at worst. But in other cases, coworkers are so difficult or frustrating that it makes the entire job unbearable.
So what can you do to make these near-impossible working conditions better?
Making a Healthier Work Environment
Few problems with difficult coworkers resolve on their own. If you want to make the situation better and improve your work environment, these are the steps you’ll need to follow:
1. Practice cultural competence. First, try to understand the other person’s perspectives, and why they behave the way they do, through cultural competence. As Global Cognition explains, cultural competence is the practice of recognizing people from other cultures, understanding their values, beliefs, and perspectives, then using that information to build healthier collaborative relationships. For example, if your coworker comes from a culture that values individuality, they may not be especially agreeable in team projects. If they’re from a culture that values leadership over sympathy and peer relationships, they may come off as more bossy or distant than they actually are.
2. Talk to your coworker directly. If cultural competence doesn’t help you handle the problem, or if it isn’t relevant to the situation, your next step should be talking to your coworker—directly and honestly—about the problem. This may feel awkward, but it’s surprisingly effective, and it’s the most logical and respectful step you can take. Try using “I feel” statements to explain your perspective, and make a request for their behavior or actions to change.
3. Examine your own habits. While you’re at it, take a look at your own habits, and determine whether you play any small part in your coworker’s undesirable behavior. For example, do you sometimes challenge them in front of others? If so, they may get defensive. Do you have a reputation for being easygoing and taking criticism well? If so, they may target you for their spurts of negativity over your other coworkers.
4. Address hostility with gentle humor. If your coworker is openly hostile or insulting to you, try to address their comments with gentle humor. It’s one of the most effective tools there is for disarming a combative conversation. Implicitly agree with whatever they’re saying, and crack a joke about it; openly displaying apathy toward these comments, when they’re intended to get a rise out of you, will force the coworker to stop making them, or else move on to other targets.
5. Confront your coworker as a group. If your coworker is difficult for other people to handle as well, and if the above steps haven’t encouraged any improvement, consider confronting the coworker in question with a group of people. Hearing requests and criticism from multiple people may be the wakeup call they need to truly change their behavior; it serves as a kind of intervention.
6. Request different teammates. If your strategies still aren’t working, you may need to request further action from higher up. Talk to your boss or supervisors about putting you on a different team, to reduce your need to interact with the coworker in question. Make sure you only take this step after talking to the coworker directly, or you could be viewed as selfish or get your coworker in trouble, unnecessarily. Make sure you also document some of the problematic behavior and some of your efforts to correct it, so you can show your bosses the work you’ve already accomplished.
7. Seek intervention from higher-ups. If you’re on a different team and the coworker is still a problem, or if a team switch is not possible, you may need to seek true intervention from higher-ups. You might request that they take disciplinary action, or move you to an entirely new department. Depending on the organization, they may recommend mediation or impose new rules and restrictions to prevent the behavior from recurring.
Is It a Company Culture Problem?
If you’ve followed all the above steps and the
leadership within your company is not willing to take action against your
coworker, or if you find the problem persists with other coworkers, you may
need to take a step back and ask, “is this a company culture problem?” Any company, no matter how good, can hire an employee or two that
makes life harder for everyone else. But if the company seems to have a “type,”
which interferes with your work style and makes life difficult for you, it’s a
sign that the company’s culture is to blame; this is a company that
specifically attracts problematic employees, and is likely an unhealthy
environment to continue working for.